In the last article, we covered a lot of ground. I was a little out of breath by the time I finished writing it! But Palermo deserves to have some serious time spent, just taking it in, exploring. So now that you've been brought fully up to speed on the many historic layers of this city, I want to take a deep dive with you and just get out on the streets of Palermo.
You may recall from the last article that, although this was historically considered to be a very beautiful place, modern-day Palermo is not known for its looks. Much of the city was destroyed by Allied forces during WWII, and in Italy's struggle to get back on its feet after the war, a lot changed. Sicily was moving away from being a primarily agricultural economy, and by the time the 1950s rolled around, people were flocking from the countryside to the cities faster than housing could be built to accommodate them. This was a trend all around Sicily, but Palermo saw the heaviest influx of new residents, and this prompted a huge housing shortage that lasted all the way through the 1980s.
To meet the demand for housing, Palermo rushed to build apartment buildings as fast as it could. But thanks to a number of confounding factors, most notably the persisting presence of the Mafia, these construction projects didn't go super well. The apartment buildings were dirty and run-down the day they opened, and they were often built on top of what had formerly been lush green space. This turned the Palermo metro area into a bleak concrete jungle, in what is now locally referred to as "scempio," (roughly translated, "the Sack of Palermo").
Today Palermo doesn't have a reputation for beauty amongst travelers. However, this city was ruled by a more varied group of empires than almost anywhere else in history—including the Arabs, the Normans, the Byzantines, the Spanish, to name a few—and these cultures have each left distinct marks on Palermo. Today, all these historical layers still exist, and while some areas on the outskirts of the city do look a little bleak, the historic center of Palermo is very much "as it was." This neighborhood was historically the Arab quarter of the city, known by locals as "The Kalsa." Here's a map of Palermo to give you some context for what you're about to see...
A huge part of my heritage is rooted in Sicily, and Palermo was the historic home for this part of my family. Italian culture played an important role in my childhood, so I was excited to see Palermo. So maybe it was just wishful thinking, but when I arrived here, I really felt a sense of warmth. Everybody I interacted with across this whole city was extremely kind and accommodating (except for one particular homeless man that yelled at me every time I passed him—fuck that guy), so I came away from the whole experience with a lot of good vibes. Palermo has such a lively street life and social atmosphere that it was hard to feel too down. Maybe I was reading too much into things, but I really felt like there was a tangible sense of community here, and I don't feel that just anywhere.
So the photos below span quite a few different walks I took, through the Kalsa and beyond. Some of them were featured in the previous article, but a lot of them will be new. There were parts of these walks where I began to enter into areas that were clearly developed during the Sack of Palermo, and I'd be lying if I told you that these areas were beautiful... but even here, I still felt the positive energy of Palermo. People were outside, being social. There were cafés that smelled awesome. There were street vendors selling fruit. It was the same city and the same community! It just had a slightly less beautiful backdrop.
Anyway, here's a big dose of Palermo for you...
I especially love those last 2 photos. The one on the left (night time shot) is actually my phone background now. I love it because the light in it is perfect. It's not often that I am so satisfied with a photo, but my success is slowly but surely becoming more frequent. The photo on the right (day time shot) would not be the same if it wasn't for those 2 men standing on that overhang. It adds a completely new dimension to the shot, and it's total coincidence that I caught them up there because I didn't catch anybody else out on those things throughout the entire duration of my time in Sicily.
Anyway, we do have one more post left from Palermo... and it's not going to be nearly so positive. In fact, it's going to be pretty horrendous. Brace yourselves people, because up next, we are going to the Capuchin Catacombs and we are going get up close and personal with some dead bodies. The squeamish among you will not like it. Reader discretion is advised. 😬
In the meantime, here's something a slice of classic Italian cinema for your photo browsing.